Planting seeds for the future: Building a Life-sustaining Society
THERE IS A MOUNTAIN of data documenting the enormous environmental destruction that presently faces our planet, with whole cultures and delicate ecosystems disappearing on a global scale. Occasionally, we receive messages in the form of images that enable us to make connections and see our world differently, bringing things together for us in a powerful way that facts alone seem unable to do.
• The first image of Earth from space, as a unique ‘water planet’ with no lines marking boundaries, an interconnected seamless whole, gave us a sense of both the beauty and the vulnerability of our home.
• Just over a decade ago in the Austrian Alps, one of our ancestors who had been frozen in a glacier for fifty-three centuries was found in the thawing ice bearing a message ‘The Earth is getting warmer’. The glaciers, that are beginning to melt in high mountains all over the world, are reservoirs in the sky that have been there since agriculture began and that we have taken for granted.
• Just a few years ago in Arctic summer, the Russian captain of a ship only metres from the magnetic North Pole, was amazed to find instead of the normally metre-thick ice, miles of open water at the top of the world, and seabirds circling where none had previously been seen—an indication that global warming is an issue from which we can run, but not hide.
• Recently, came a local report saying that Canberra, our nation’s capital, was coated by a thick cloud of red dust brought in by winds from the west, where evidence of the current drought is plainly before the eyes of those who live on the land. The image of a wind-borne message from the Earth for our nation’s leaders was striking.
A week later we in Sydney could taste for ourselves the dry red dust in the air we breathe, taste our land that is literally blowing away in the wind. The strange dim light was similar to that in times of bushfires, another increasingly common feature of our time. I wondered if we connected our energy use, driving habits, and rising consumption that contribute to global warming with the drying up of our country, already the driest inhabited continent on Earth.
We frequently fail to make the connections to our own lives: between city and country perspectives; between developed and developing world; between our lifestyles and ecosystem collapse. Even when we do make connections or feel concern, why is it that we stand unmoving? What blocks our thinking and acting? In a rich country like Australia there are few excuses for degrading and polluting our land and waters, forcing to extinction so many of our unique animals, birds and plants, and failing to pursue a sustainable way of life.
Hearing the Voices of Earth Others
The word integrity is frequently applied to the environment, as well as being used of an individual person. Integrity is a relational word. Our relationships with other dimensions of life are geographical, temporal, and genetic. There are three groups to keep in mind when considering how we should live: the world’s poorest people, future generations and the 60 million or so other species with whom we share our home, the Earth. These are the other voices, the ones often excluded or not able to be represented in the debate on sustainability. They are frequently the most vulnerable, and they need our advocacy.
Delegates at a recent conference heard such a voice, the heartfelt pleas of a delegate from Kiribati, begging the Australian people and Government to make a vow to help her people, to try to feel what her people feel living on a low island, one of a number in our region which may disappear under rising seas by the end of the century. The Australian Government has responded to the dire threats posed by the world’s leading climate scientists regarding global warming by continually blocking or calling for the dilution of the Kyoto Protocol.
At the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg, after many expert speakers debating the fate of the planet with the stale language of bureaucracy, a fourteen-year old girl from Ecuador spoke to world leaders. Her words were like a breath of fresh air. ‘Remember we cannot buy another planet and o ur lives and those of future generations depend on it. We need more than your applause, your comments of well done, or good speech…We need action.’
If each of the world’s six billion people were to live like the average American or Australian, we would in fact need four extra planets. This ‘overshoot’ or excess consumption means that the rich are living off the natural resources of the poor who suffer most when ecosystems are degraded or collapse. In today’s high-speed era of expanding world markets, this notion is lost in a dizzying glut of numbers about trade deficits and gross national product. Acting in the spirit of justice is not only about redistribution, but also about restraint.
The deepening footprint of humanity is starting to feel too much like quicksand. Take in deeply the beauty of our remaining forests and bushland, and the sight of the birds on the wing as 70% of species are in drastic decline. Yet, as Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute commented ‘Decisions are being postponed in societies at all levels of industrial development and of every political persuasion…In effect, we are behaving as though we have no children, as though there will not be a next generation’.1
Why is it that all these messages are falling on deaf ears or blind eyes, ideas ignored by closed minds, and pleas addressed to hardened hearts, like seeds falling on barren ground? How can we bring about change in our society, to live together responsibly in these times, with compassion and insight?
It is a long journey from the head to the heart and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands, especially in a world in which economic and market metaphors are used to describe ecological realities; they define the range of ‘thinkable thought’. Our warning signs of the unwinding of natural life-support systems demand that we not exceed the sustainable yield of our forests, rivers, oceans and soils, nor exceed their capacity to absorb polluting waste. Yet with our perspective increasingly narrowed to an economic and short-term one, there is frequently no informed or critical debate—the continued growth of the economy, and maintenance of our Western ‘lifestyle’ is the ‘rational’ norm. Other important considerations are sidelined entirely or dismissed as emotive. So to envision an alternate future is, in this sense, almost to ‘think the unthinkable’.
Seeds of Hope
All over the world, tens of thousands of educators and activists, and many other ordinary people, are working to turn our ecological crisis around. However, their numbers are yet small. Their ideas and actions are like seeds. In an acre field thousands may be scattered, maybe a dozen saplings emerge, but only one may survive to become a great tree. We face huge challenges. The enormity of the problem is both confronting and overwhelming; it can lead to a sense of despair, powerlessness and inaction. To bring about the deep change that is required might seem like a miracle. However, both science and religion recognise that miracles are not random. By freeing the logjam in our thinking that has blocked our vision, by making the connections, we can begin to make this miracle happen.
One of the first steps in action planning for environmental and social change requires the ability to imagine a better way of being in the world. We need to see where we are headed if current trends continue, look at the values central in our lives, to envision a preferred future, and then set about to create that future together. A new vibrant culture is starting to emerge fuelled by direct participation at a community level. As the fences surrounding our thinking as to ‘what is possible’ are brought down, new windows to the future are opening. The ecological crisis requires more than the quick fixes of science and technology. Ecological problems are essentially cultural, and require a spirited response from and to the earth from men and women of faith.
In the book The Little Prince, the businessman was busy counting and owning the stars: ‘Five hundred and one million, six hundred twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one…I own them…they belong to me…because I was the first person to think of it’.2 In yet another extension of Descartes’ view of living things as mechanical, as things that can be bought and sold, patented or used at will, the businessman displayed how grown men can delude themselves. Unlike this businessman, or today’s biotechnology corporations with their abstractions and quest for control, the Little Prince had imagination and a sense of wonder. This is what is needed to understand life, and to create a community vision for our future. We can then take the steps to bring into being the type of world we want, not simply retreating or being immobilised in fear by the direction our world is taking. Or will we continue ‘sleepwalking’ into an increasingly socially fragmented and ecologically unsustainable future? If we remain on our present course, increasingly humans will find themselves not exempt from this mechanical view of life, one so alien to traditional and indigenous cultures.
A recurring theme here is the importance of the distinction between ‘having’ and ‘being’. If the world is based on ‘having’ more and more, there is no scope for the survival of the Earth. With industrialisation and new technologies it is the corporate world that has blossomed. With the average viewer in the US seeing 23,000 commercials a year, craving is established and re-established—the resulting ‘philosophy of what constitutes a good life is destroying diversity, local culture, local livelihoods, local peace of mind…and (it) destroys the soul’.3 The first step is to change oneself, before we can change the world.
See the Connections: Clearing the Logjams in our Thinking
In the last century, four megaphenomena have appeared on the graph of evolutionary change—carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere, extinction of species, human population and unsustainable consumption—and these changes are transforming our planet. To each of these crises the public reaction is dreamlike and slow, some are vaguely troubled, others obliviously unconcerned. For those who are troubled, there is confusion and little real resolve. We live detached from our natural world, disconnected from the effects of human activity. As the pace of change and life itself increases, our focus becomes more myopic. Occasionally we are surprised by individual pieces of information, but seem to fail to make the connections between them. There are a number of contributing factors here.4
First, not far away, a powerful and purposeful organisation is working very hard to keep it that way—one with a vested interest, financial and psychological, in denying that these are urgent problems. ‘Mis-information’ is put out to fend off any interference with ‘business as usual’. The goal is to create doubt or scepticism, and cause hesitation in action—one that has stagnated global policies for years, while forests are felled wiping out yet more species, and the oil continues to flow. By the mid-1990s there were more Public Relations employees in the United States than news reporters, and their releases are the sole source for many news stories. This skewing and laundering of information leaves the bulk of the news content empty and lulls us into tragic complacency.
Second, the ‘news’ of the environmental crisis is not sensational: it is about an invisible gas that has always been in the air and is harmless to breathe; it is about an unobservable disappearance of plants and animals, the majority of which we have never seen; the heavy consumption is visible enough in Western countries, but so pervasive it is seen as normal.
On the global crime of food transport alone recent figures estimate: ‘The average food item set before a US consumer travelled 2100 km to get there. For only ten food items a day, in a year the food will have covered five million miles by land, sea and air—equivalent to ten trips to the moon and back’.5 In an increasingly glo lf-destructive behaviour. Many have slipped into denial. Rachel Carson first focussed the attention of the world on the deadly effects of pesticides and DDT decades ago with the publishing of Silent Spring; however, only recently have the full implications of the 70,000 synthetic chemicals now dispersed in our environment come to light.6 Ten years ago The World Scientists Warning to Humanity gave us good notice that our alterations to the Earth and its processes are subjecting us—all of us without exception—to an enormous experiment, after which, no second chance will be possible. The United Nations Environmental Program report in 2000 stated ‘Our present course is unsustainable’7. As alarm bells ring, there are insistent calls for a different kind of ‘progress’, a new approach to economics and a new set of relationships.
Finally, the liquidation of our earth’s resources is like the use of petrol in a car. If you don’t watch the gauge, you can drive along unaware until the car stops. This is illustrated most clearly in the consumption of fresh water, which now exceeds rainfall recharge in much of the world. There is simply no way to overstate the water crisis of the planet today. We are diverting polluting and depleting water at an astonishing rate. The goal of great trans-national corporations is now to exploit the shortage of life’s basic necessity for profit—water is to be turned into a commodity to be traded on global markets.
Rampant consumerism and market capitalism are forces opposed to the abundant life for all people and the planet. Yet the public remains largely silent about the enormous damages done rather than rock the boat of globalised free trade. Prices must tell the ecological truth, bringing into view critical information that is now ignored or hidden so that consumers better understand the true environmental costs of their purchases and investments. ‘That is the real nub of the sustainability debate: We ‘over-consumers’ don’t see the invisible connections, between our lives, and the ecological systems and processes which undergird them’.8
Ecological and Social Sustainability Rise or Fall Together: ‘People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones’.
For years rich countries, with the World Bank and IMF, have been telling the poor countries to pay back their debt. It now emerges in the age of climate change, by recklessly burning far more than their fair share of fossil fuels and overusing the ‘atmospheric commons’ to dispose of their excess emissions, rich countries have run up a huge environmental debt.9 The world that they have created in gaining their considerable economic success is an increasingly fragile and hostile place.
Jeff McMullen, in his recent book Life of Extremes, speaks of a range of contemporary social and environmental issues from a first hand perspective stressing the urgent need to see our world and our selves differently. He noted that in the last century, the most violent in history with one hundred and eighty million people killed in conflict that continues around the world, we have also been at war with the Earth, and this intersection he sees as far from accidental. He describes the stripping of life supporting resources and the butchering of a million people in one hundred days in Rwanda as an event about control of resources; one for which there was no television coverage, no public outcry, no international response.
He stressed that the media have generally failed to tell the story as it is, failing to look at the broader patterns. And we, like those in the movie The Matrix, are in our own ‘bubble’ focussed on our everyday lives, unaware that decisions are being made for us. ‘If we are now seeing another round of the ‘oil wars’ in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there is a very real risk that soon we will face the water wars’.10 Environmental ruin is fuelling the human conflict in vast zones of distress; true global security will depend on our species successfully managing our most precious life-sustaining resources, which may be the sources of future conflicts. By the time a child born this year turns thirty, the world’s population of around ten billion will not have enough water to go around. We still have a small window of opportunity to address the chronic shortages but by then we will have a water crisis of staggering proportions.
This contaminated information can be as dangerous as contaminated water or food—it can cloud judgement, and dull the will to act. Our challenge today is to shatter the illusion and see our world anew, to make truly informed choices about our future that are socially and ecologically sustainable. Terrorist leaders will continue to recruit the angry and the alienated unless the world finds a new path and addresses the causes of conflict, avoiding further polarisation of societies.
The increased incidence of drought and sea level rise from climate change, the creep of salinisation of cultivated land, disease, bio-invasions and pollution do not stop at walls or borders. The real need now is not to break off and go it alone, on either a personal or a national level. We need to shift in the way government protects security—away from amassing military defences, to a campaign of biological and climate defence. We have the technology—solutions are there, awaiting the personal and political will to act upon them. We have the opportunity to create a world that is truly life sustaining. Instead of simply responding to crises, we need to invest time, money, innovation and wisdom to help build a global human community. Hardened hearts and blinkered vision will not guarantee survival, only an unstable world for future generations. We must overcome our fear of those we don’t understand so that we can reach out in the belief that there is more to unite us than divide us. Sustainability is the key tool to support peace, ecological integrity and social justice.
Reconnecting With Each Other and the Earth
The current individualistic model of human life does not encourage us to question the major global issues. We are kept in denial about these issues by powerful business lobbies and timid politicians, plus our own reluctance to shift from the most comfortable lifestyle ever enjoyed on earth. This individualistic model, which arose in the Enlightenment, is no longer supported by the science of our time. The picture of reality emerging focuses on relationships and community, rather than individuals and objects. We all came from the same beginning. We are products of nature and we are radically dependent on nature every moment of our lives. Honest scientists will admit that we know very little about the intricate web of life that sustains us.
We have reached a critical point. The evolving consciousness that we like to think distinguishes us from other animals can be characterised by the ability to remember, to conceptualise, imagine and foresee. To be human is to be able to envision and to empathise. However when we are kept focussed on immediate experience this ability is truncated; we don’t see long-term consequences to others, and ourselves, and we lose our ability to survive. We act in ways known to be putting our civilisation at risk, with no sense of ‘limit’ and no thought of the future at all.
Envisioning Counter-cultural Alternatives on How to Live is the Business of Religion.
Central to Christianity is the stance of living in a different fashion in the world, one in solidarity with and sacrifice for others. Our vision of the good life will be one not based on material goods, but on what, after basic needs are met, really makes people happy—loving relationships, meaningful work, a rich spiritual life. Changes are needed at every level—personal, professional and public, in a form of discipleship that involves sharing burdens. Does our faith allow us to live in a new way, with a ‘cruciform kind of generosity’—with a vision of abundance that includes every creature and all people, especially the most vulnerable?11
John Dominic Crossan has claimed that the open table and radical egalitarianism of Jesus’ ‘Kingdom of God’ is more terrifying than anything we have ever imagined.12 The prospect of the systemic, economic changes needed for the just and sustainable distribution of the world’s goods to all people and other creatures is at the heart of our faith and must be acknowledged. Christians should be in solidarity with those at the forefront of the great task of restructuring our society and our world.
We need a radically different consciousness of our roles as part of a great movement, and to become more aware of ourselves as processes rather than objects, recognising that nothing in ourselves is permanently owned. The air you inhale now may have blown across distant mountains yesterday, the protein that is rebuilding your muscles exerted in a busy day may have been part of an infected fish a week ago. The water in your sweat may have been part of a melting glacier in the Himalayas last year, or part of the sap of a diseased crop plant a few years before. We are connected through both space and time. A drop of water in our local creek may have once been in Jesus’ belly. This may at first seem like a frightening loss of self; however, I hold that it entails an expression of the love and life that makes the growth of our moral consciousness possible.
Church as Eco-community
Last year marked a repositioning of the church in Australia in relation to the environment, with the release of Australian Bishops’ Social Justice Statement, A New Earth: The Environmental Challenge, and the formation of Catholic Earthcare Australia. The prophets of our time may well be the young activists ‘tree-sitting’ in our threatened native forests. How do we bring about this ecological conversion, to become a church community that truly sustains life? Such a conversion challenges us to move from our personal comfort-zone to embrace justice for those most in need and to act at a number of levels.
The transition to a sustainable world requires fundamental changes in the values and behaviour of all people. The Earth Charter is the fruit of the most open and participatory consultation process ever conducted in drafting an international document and is a declaration of fundamental ethical principles and practical guidelines for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society for the 21st century, holding the potential to have the same international significance as the Declaration of Human Rights. It is an expression of hope and a call to help create a global partnership at a critical juncture in history. It aims to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and a shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the human family and the larger living world.13
In the concluding remarks of the 2001 Asia Pacific Earth Charter Conference, reference was made to Leonardo Boff’s story of The Chicken and the Eagle. The chicken, like many of us in our everyday lives and work, is very busy, focussed on the specific tasks close by in front of us. The eagle soars above with a different type of vision to take in a very wide perspective. Every person must be both the chicken and the eagle. Recognise that for each one of us, taking the first small steps on the path to a more sustainable future are important, but we also need to keep the scale of the challenge in mind as we walk.
The Path is Made by Walking
How do we get there? We need to walk together. Everyone has a role to play—the teacher, the parent, the businessman, the artist, the elders, the filmmaker, the economist, the poet, the priest, and particularly the youth of today. Can each of you see yourselves in the role of earth defender, or ‘priest of creation’? What steps are you prepared to take to align the way you live to be congruent with this new self?
I have listed just a few ways we can begin to create a sustainable culture of life on earth:
• Talk about these issues of ultimate concern with your friends and family. Share positive and inspiring ideas, build community while becoming more ecologically literate.
• Rely on our renewable natural resources like solar and wind power to nurture these major industries of the future, so that they are seeds in fertile ground. In order for the supply of ‘green’ energy to open up, YOU must demand it.
• Conserve our precious fresh water. Reconsider the weekly car hosing ritual and other forms of water waste. Replace thirsty lawn and exotic plantings with native plants.
• Reduce and revise the ‘waste’ we generate as a society. There is no ‘away’ to throw anything to! Avoid products with excess packaging. Recycle materials and buy recycled. Re-use materials and repair goods.
• Reduce your materials/energy consumption. Our human lives are overburdened with too many possessions, pulling on our time and financial limits. Borrowing and sharing require a slight attitude adjustment; however, products that sit idle for much of the time—lawn mowers, boats, video cameras—can be shared with a little cooperation between neighbours or members of a community.
• Grow and purchase locally grown, organic foods. Even a unit balcony supports fresh herbs and tomatoes. Compost your food waste.
• Insist on the observation of the precautionary principle in all uses of technology, with the burden of proof always on those wishing to trial new technology, not the other way around.
• Live where you can use as little fossil burning fuel as possible, avoiding if possible long commutes from far-flung suburbs. Consider whether your household really needs more than one car, or needs a car at all. Walk or cycle if possible.
• Get to know the place where you live; oppose clearing of remaining bushland; promote policies to enhance public transport and curb road building.
• Reconsider your consumption of meat. 30% of the world’s grain goes to feed livestock to serve the rich—to the detriment of their health! It takes two tons of water to produce a loaf of bread; it takes one hundred and twenty-five tons for a kilogram of beef.
• Assess how compatible the work you do is with a sustainable economy. Can you promote reform here? Can you organise an environmental audit of your organization or workplace?
• Check that your investments and superannuation are not supporting operations that are ecologically or socially unsound.
• Live with a smaller house and a more simple life—live lightly on the planet.
Bring about some kind of voluntary simplicity that supports ecological sustainability, social justice and human peace, asking ‘How much do we need for our well-being?’ This requires much inner work, as well as outer work. We must be gentle and patient with ourselves as well as others in this complex process.
We would do well in the challenge ahead to join with others, as environmental author and activist Fran Peavey says, to ‘think and act like water’—working together powerfully with other drops of water to wear away resistance drop by drop—wear away the stones upon which poverty and suffering rest—always looking for the deepest way to flow, and allowing the world to flow through us.14 We might then be able to be not only pilgrims on the earth, but also pilgrims with the earth.
The swell of ‘grass-roots’ involvement in environmental activities in recent years is a seed of great hope for the future. In observing and being attentive to the life within the local creek, wetlands, bush reserve, or even in your own backyard, a sense of sharing this ‘home’ with other life forms and valuing it for its own sake increasingly develops as we come to recognise the non-human environment as an ultimate concern. When we are deeply rooted in love and respect for all of creation, although it may not be easy or convenient, it nevertheless becomes a joy to make choices that help sustain life rather than destroy it. Through our actions in living sustainably, we plant seeds of hope in our hearts.
1 Lester Brown, State of the World, 1998.
2 Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (London: Heinemann, 1945), English trans. by Katherine Woods (London: Pan Books, 1982), 42.
3 Kamla Chowdry, speaking at the Asia Pacific Earth Charter Conference, Brisbane, 2001.
4 This is set out in detail in Ed Ayre’s book, God’s Last Offer (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999) pp. 1-91.
5 Sydney Morning Herald, 14-15 Sept. Book review of Small Wonders.
6 Many mimic the actions of hormones in human and other creatures and are responsible for declining sperm counts, reproductive failures, and high incidence of deformations in frogs, fish and birds and the impaired intellectual and behavioural development of children.
7 Global Outlook 2000, UNEP.
8 Wayne Ellwood, ‘Sustainability: searching for solutions’ in New Internationalist, Nov. 2000.
9 Andrew Simms, in Anita Roddick, Take it Personally (Bath: The Bath Press, 2001) 160.
10 Jeff McMullen, Life of Extremes, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2002, 339.
11 Sallie McFague, Life Abundant, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, 182.
12 Sallie Mc Fague, Life Abundant, 173.
13 See Earth Charter www.earthcharter.org.
14 Fran Peavey, Heart Politics Revisited, Annandale: Pluto Press, 2001, 371.
Sandra Menteith is Office Manager of Oz GREEN (www.ozgreen.org.au). She is a serving mem-ber of Catholic Earth-care Australia, and is associated with the Catholic Institute of Sydney, in the field of Environmental Ethics.